This story is part of Fix’s What’s Next Issue, which looks ahead to the ideas and innovations that will shape the climate conversation in 2022, and asks what it means to have hope now. Check out the full issue here.

Ramona grew up in a border town in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas with a sense of community that transcended nationality. “I tell my grandchildren stories of what it was like at the park, how families on one side of the river would shout to speak to families on the other side,” she says in Spanish, in a video posted by advocacy group Voces Unidas. “There was this sense of coexistence, even though the river was right there.”

The video is part of a campaign by Voces Unidas, a collective that is focused on immigration and community development throughout the Rio Grande Valley and resisting President Biden’s approach to immigration and border security. “The pretty places where we’d go to spend time together are now like a military encampment,” she says. “The park fills me with sadness.” 

Voces Unidas is one of many organizations working with residents of border towns to dismantle the physical and electronic walls that upend their lives. Local and national migrants’ rights groups are determined to weaken the government’s access to databases and other technologies used to surveil migrants and undocumented immigrants, and they are pressuring elected officials to stop funding such efforts. It’s part of a broader campaign to change the global approach to immigration enforcement and border militarization in the face of a mounting climate migration crisis.

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As extreme weather, droughts, and other effects of a warming world become the norm, the number of climate refugees is expected to skyrocket. Today, about 1 percent of Earth’s surface is a “barely livable hot zone,” a figure that could reach 19 percent by 2070, according to an analysis by The New York Times and ProPublica. As conditions worsen, migration will become a means of adaptation. Some 9 million people will head for Mexico’s southern border between now and 2050, the Times found. There are myriad reasons for that, but about 300,000 migrants will be driven solely by climate change. And, as is the case around the world, they will face an ever-tighter, more heavily guarded border. 

“When you’re anywhere in the vicinity of the international boundary, it’s very common to interact with Border Patrol, to get asked questions, to be harassed,” says Norma Herrera of No Border Wall Coalition, which is based in Laredo, Texas, and works throughout the Rio Grande River valley. “Members of our coalition have had guns drawn on their faces.” 

The United States spent almost 11 times more on border and immigration enforcement than on climate initiatives between 2013 and 2018. Collectively, the U.S. and the world’s six other leading greenhouse gas emitters spent twice as much on border enforcement than climate mitigation. The Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy group that works on immigration and other issues, dubs such efforts a “global climate wall” that wealthy nations use to keep migrants out rather than address the underlying reasons people flee their homelands or meaningfully address climate change.

These walls are expanding as the U.S., like the European Union, erects “externalized borders” by providing Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and other countries with the money, training, and technology to strengthen their borders. Beyond making these places more unlivable by shoring up police and military forces, these policies make it harder for people to escape poverty, repression, and the impacts of a warming world, says Nick Buxton*, a researcher with the Transnational Institute who studies the border security industry. Instead of welcoming people who are fleeing a problem it played an overwhelming role in creating, the U.S. sees them as a security threat.

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And though droughts, floods, and other climate disasters lead farmers in places like Guatemala to move, their migration occurs within a larger context in which U.S. foreign policy plays a key role. “It is also necessary to examine a discriminatory political and neoliberal economic system that has long favored local oligarchies and transnational corporations over the country’s majority of Indigenous peoples and small farmers,” the Transnational Institute notes in its 2021 report

The dangers of “smart” borders

Here in the United States, the Biden administration has promoted the use of a “smart” or “digital” border wall, one that uses drones and automated long-range cameras along common migration routes, video surveillance, expansive biometric data collection — including DNA samples — of everyone apprehended by border patrol agents, and other technologies to identify and apprehend migrants.

The administration plans to spend $4.3 billion building the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System, a database that in its current iteration already includes more than 200 million people. The system, which the Department of Homeland Security says will replace outdated technology, will combine biometric data like fingerprints, scars, and tattoos with facial recognition data, eye scans, voiceprints, and even DNA. It also will draw from social media and include political affiliations, religious activities, and merge information gathered by the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Homeland security officials say the system will be used for national security, law enforcement, immigration and border management, and other purposes. 

Critics of the technology, called HART, argue it will infringe on people’s constitutional rights by making them fearful of participating in demonstrations or criticizing the government on social media, as that information may be added to the database and used against them. (They point to the use of surveillance drones at Black Lives Matter demonstrations to support their point.) Migrants’ rights advocates worry the system will cause unwarranted detentions and deportations, since some of the information it draws from is outdated or inaccurate. Organizers with Mijente, a group based in Phoenix that is devoted to Latinx and Chicanx rights, warn that making it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information will lead to more people being deported after minor offenses like running a red light. And the UN Special Rapporteur has noted that such a system could be used to pursue punitive enforcement measures “rooted in the racist, xenophobic and ethnonationalist vision of immigration.”

Expanding the virtual border wall and expanding surveillance capabilities enjoys bipartisan support. Even as Democrats decried Trump’s physical wall, they argue that a militarized and high-tech border is a humane alternative to the former president’s policies.

But for migrants’ rights advocates like Buxton, the claim rings false. “This technology is not deployed to rescue or save people, but often just to surveil and stop people,” he says. “It’s a false story to say this is somehow more humane, because what it does is funnel people into more dangerous routes.”

As the impacts of climate change grow worse, climate migrants will take those routes through remote regions of the Sonoran Desert to flee the consequences of a crisis they had little to no role in creating. The U.S. is responsible for 25​​ percent of all carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Climate justice advocates and others call this a climate debt that wealthy nations owe to the Global South. Instead of paying down this obligation, the U.S. and other nations are further penalizing people seeking a better life, Buxton and others say. 

Organizers push back

Mijente has launched a campaign against the database and the use of similar technologies, and it is calling for an end to the government contracts that finance their development.

“We’re challenging immigration enforcement, the criminalization of immigrants, and how those systems are powered and expanded by technology,” says organizer Cinthya Rodriguez. “We’re also challenging the ways in which big companies are able to profit off our communities and build their wealth off the suffering of our communities by committing human rights abuses with no accountability.” 

Their campaigns are working. Mijente successfully cut off immigration authorities’ access to individual’s utility information, which was used to track, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. In the border town of Chula Vista, California, the Chula Vista Surveillance Ad Hoc Committee pressured local officials to require the police department to stop providing data collected by license plate readers to federal immigration authorities. Now, they’re working to end the use of license plate readers entirely. In Texas, the Rio Grande Valley No Border Wall Coalition is fighting the continued construction of what is now Biden’s physical border wall. Among other things, it is working with residents to better understand how much is spent on border security even as their communities lack basic infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of [communities] within our county without public transportation, but also without lights. There’s a lot of necessities we have in our colonies that for us, it seems illogical that they’re investing so much money in the border wall,” says Ramona Casas, a senior organizer with Arise Adelante, which works with low-income residents of rural communities in Hidalgo County in South Texas. 

“We’re challenging immigration enforcement, the criminalization of immigrants, and how those systems are powered and expanded by technology.”

—Cinthya Rodriguez, organizer with Mijente

For now, the border remains a dangerous place for migrants. Yet they will continue making the perilous trek in ever-greater numbers, because political upheaval and the effects of a warming world will leave no other choice. Organizations like Mijente and Voces Unidas say they will continue fighting for a compassionate immigration and border policy, one rooted in the open and welcoming borderlands experience longtime residents recall from their past. 

“If I had the power in my hands,” Ramona says in the video posted by Voces Unidas, “I would bring forth all of the beauty of the river to make every single mile a place for families.” 

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Buxton.

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